Ethiopia: Mother Tongue Teaching-Learning Key to Assure Quality Education

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London, UK.

Second grade students in Sidama, Zone in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples' State of Ethiopia, are learning to read with the revised curriculum developed by USAID and the Ministry of Education to improve reading for 15 million children.

(Robert Sauers, USAID Ethiopia)

If a given student does not know the subject matter he/she is being taught only because the course is offered in his/her non-mother tongue, what other reasons could be mentioned than this to put quality education in jeopardy? And what other reason is there to turn to for the academic failure of the student if not the medium of instruction that is alien to the learner?

Unless the mother tongue, that is used in the teaching-learning process, is commonly understood both by the teacher and the learner, how can quality education be attained?

This writer is in the opinion, no matter how the school environment is crammed with best teaching learning equipment and no matter how the school is praised for having brilliant teachers, in addition to other good qualities, combined together, they won't be solely fruitful unless lessons are offered in mother tongue of the learners if the goal is to bring forth quality education.

In parallel to the aforementioned point, Global Campaign for Education Policy's Brief on Mother-tongue education illustrates the issue further. It reads, "Literacy is not simply being able to decode what is on a page: it is the intellectual process of gaining meaning from text; an achievement only possible in a language that is understood."

Moreover, the offering of education in the second language is condemned for throwing students into confusion. According to the brief, children in remote rural areas, who speak one language at home and have no contact with the school language outside of the classroom, often have the biggest problems in gaining any understanding of the language taught at school.

Here is a real life incidence that paints a picture of how children will be separated from the reality they live in, if not taught in their mother tongue. Once a friend of mine who was a teacher told me about his experience. He was a tutor for a grade three student in a well to do private school. Once the tutor asked his student what 'rehab'- Amharic term for hunger means. The student, as my friend told me, was puzzled and reiterated back to the tutor saying, is there an Amharic word called 'rehab'? In the discussion following what happened with the tutor, we found out that it was the responsibility of that private school 'policy' the kid attends. "Because the school's medium of instruction is English--a language that is not the mother tongue of the boy." Needless to say, it has become a trend in many of the private schools to ban learners speaking any of their mother tongue but English.

In a mother tongue day marked for the 5th time nationally in Hawzen town of Tigray State recently, it was stressed that the provision of education in the mother tongue of students, especially for the first cycle learners is vital. "Doing so will not only help students understand the lessons in a concrete manner; but it also contributes in improving the quality of education."

Apart from improving the understanding level of the students and improvement of their interaction, it was also highlighted that mother tongue instruction is key for reflecting ones culture and identity.

Besides, the mother tongue instruction is also important for parents as they could help their children in their studies yet giving detailed examples based on their rich and real life experiences. And that in turn plays a valuable role in substantiating the theory of the lessons to learners. And that will pave the path to the realization of quality education.

In this regard, 46 languages in Ethiopia are in function in the teaching and learning process. And 11 of them are made to have their own alphabets and numbers. This and other efforts in this regard indicate the efforts under way in the country to make mother tongues the medium of instructions in the teaching-learning process.

Cognizant to this and the role it plays in assuring quality of education, the Global Campaign Brief acknowledges Ethiopia's efforts in this aspect. "In Ethiopia, local language policy has resulted in lower drop-out rates and higher retention."

There is no doubt that doing so together with other activities will ensure quality education. Tihtina Zenebe Gebre in her paper entitled 'Effects of Mother Tongue Education on Schooling and Child Labour Outcomes' stated that, "A number of studies argue that mother tongue instruction (MTI) is superior to second language instruction in facilitating effective classroom communication, thereby increasing access and quality of education."

Where mother-tongue instruction is in practice in the teaching-learning process, progresses have been registered in students' level understanding of the lessons they learnt. For example, a study in Mali where the mother tongue language of instruction was used children were five times less likely to repeat the year and more than three times less likely to drop out.

Nevertheless, implementing mother tongue instruction in country such us ours with rich language diversities is not a bed of roses; it is because languages require their own writings and alphabets. Apart from that, "Lack of trained teachers who are proficient in local languages and inadequate supply of pedagogical materials can further reduce the effectiveness of MTI policies in improving educational attainment," Tihtina said.

In 2014, the Ministry of Education in collaboration with he United States Agency for International Development (USAID), launched a national mother tongue reading curriculum to improve the reading skills of 15 million primary school students and training of 65,000 teachers in Ethiopia.

The introduction of the new curriculum and reading materials to grades 1-4, complemented by teacher training, resulted from a massive two-year effort involving federal and state officials, educators, linguists, and illustrators, teacher training colleges and pilot schools. A similar effort is now under way for grades 5-8.

To address the major challenge of poor reading comprehension in early grades, the Ministry of Education and USAID designed a national early grade reading programme, called,' Reading for Ethiopia's Achievement Developed (READ)'. The overall goal of this massive five-year programme (2012-2017) is to improve the reading and writing skills of 15 million children in grades 1-8 in seven of the most widely spoken languages in Ethiopia--Amharic, Tigrigna, Afaan Oromo, Af-Somaali, Sidama Afoo, Wolayttatto, and Hadiyyisa. The use of mother tongue instruction reflects an education policy that helps children learn more rapidly in the languages they speak at home before transitioning to learn in other languages.

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